What is Putin afraid of on Ukraine?

About a hundred thousand Russian troops are amassed along Russia’s border with Ukraine, ready to invade the country on Vladimir Putin’s command. Whether this actually happens is problematic and it may amount to a lot of saber rattling.

Since 2014, when Ukraine peacefully elected a democratic leader and legislature, it has petitioned to join NATO. It’s choice of democracy was worrisome; but its desire for NATO membership is what Putin is really worried about. Over the decades, Russia’s formerly closely-aligned states on its west have mostly aligned themselves with the West and joined NATO.

His worry about Ukraine joining NATO is not too hard to figure out, as there is more than a millennium of history that shows Russians and other empires can and will invade Eastern Europe and leave behind a lot of death, misery and carnage. Borders in this area of the world are quite fungible. Countries like Prussia and empires like the Holy Roman Empire controlled large swaths of these countries in the past. They are gone, but instead of Mongrel hordes, it’s now mostly Russia which is the threat. Russia likes satellite states on its west to act as a buffer between it and the republics of Europe.

You may have heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Back then the United States was acting a lot like Russia is now. When a foreign threat got too close to our shores, it became unacceptable. The Soviets then wisely withdrew after a tense standoff, and Cuba went back to being officially communist but not a real threat to our national security. Short range nuclear missiles in Cuba though were a real threat for which there was almost no time to react.

Subsequent U.S. presidents have remained exceptionally paranoid. Ronald Reagan’s CIA replaced freely elected governments in Central America with mostly despotic banana republics that we controlled. Reagan eventually sent in the Marines to occupy Grenada in the far West Indies because its citizens had some socialist leanings. Grenada is about 1500 miles from the United States mainland.

From Russia’s perspective, the West is encroaching on it. Since 2004, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia have joined the European Union. All these countries are on or near Russia’s borders. Most of these countries also now belong to NATO. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are no longer Russian buffer states. Basically Belarus and Ukraine are the only ones left for Russia. Imagine if Mexico, the Bahamas, Bermuda and most of the Caribbean were socialist or communist states. We’d be just as alarmed as Russia, if not more.

Ukraine though is culturally and ethnically very tied to Russia; much the way Canada feels tied to the United States because we (mostly) share the same language and dominant ethnicities. If Canada became a communist state, we’d probably feel what Putin is feeling now. We’d be deeply alarmed. Eastern European states want to belong to both the European Union and NATO because they want protection from Russia, which has a history of invading or controlling them. They also like the taste of freedom that comes from being democratic states.

So it’s not surprising in the least that Putin is very alarmed. He wants assurances that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO. If it is, there’s no reason short range missiles can’t be place there, able to lob missiles at Russia before it can do much in the way of responding to them. He’s feeling cramped in.

Here in the West we wonder what all the fuss is about. I doubt very much that Joe Biden wants to change Russia’s system of government, which is a de-facto autocracy with the illusion of free and open elections. He wouldn’t mind if it happened, but Russia is too big an entity to invade. If it happens, it will happen from within. The United States though is in favor of stable and democratic governments, well, at least some of us are. The Republican Party is of course working hard to subvert democratic government here because demographics are turning against them. Republicans are now completely comfortable with autocracy, providing they are in charge, and many don’t want to lift a finger to help Ukraine.

Putin doesn’t want real democracy in Russia. They tried, sort of, after the end of the Cold War, but communists were quickly replaced with oligarchs. It’s no wonder our Republican party seems so friendly to Russia as it is effectively a party captured by oligarchs. It’s no wonder that Donald Trump wanted to align the United States with Russia, as he felt much more comfortable with autocrats and oligarchs. The whole idea of representative democracy has never agreed with him and, increasingly, with the bulk of his party.

Putin’s interest is likely mostly self-serving. He’s an oligarch worth at least tens of billions, but if Russia were to become truly democratic, it’s likely his wealth and status as an oligarch would go as well. But he likely does read Russia correctly, in that it’s a generally deeply conservative country. Democracy is not likely to fit it well, or at all.

As for what Russia will do, my betting is that no troops will invade Ukraine. But I do expect we’ll see some low level cyber warfare instead, which can probably be attributed to Russia but will mysteriously be missing the electronic footprints to prove it. The United States and its allies are likely to respond in kind.

1/6 could have been a lot worse

A year has come and gone since a violent gang of insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol. At the time I remember trying to keep my wife calm by projecting false confidence that it would soon get under control.

It did, but not before a lot of damage to the building, injuries, defacements and the deaths of at least five people. A year later, more than seven hundred people have been charged with crimes from the event, most of them misdemeanors. It’s only in the last week or so that we’ve seen charges of seditious conspiracy against a number of leaders of the so-called “Oath Keepers”.

We were lucky. We were not lucky in preparing the necessary law enforcement for the event, which I warned about on January 3, 2021. It was entirely foreseeable. But we were lucky in that it wasn’t a whole lot worse.

Obviously, it was very bad. The last ones to breach the Capitol were the British army during the War of 1812. This time it was our own citizens. It was very bad for those who died or were injured. Many of those injured incurred permanent disabilities, mostly PTSD. A few of them took their own lives. It was brutal and crazy but with one exception no guns were used, at least by the insurrectionists. Their most lethal weapons were apparently bear spray and flag staffs. The gallows they placed on the Capitol’s frontage was symbolic; it wasn’t tall enough to actually hang anyone or sturdy enough to finish the job.

The insurrectionists’ intentions though were clear enough: they wanted to overturn the results of the presidential election. They succeeded in postponing the process to the wee hours of January 7.

The Oath Keepers though were likely not the only group with firearms on standby. You have to have a firearms permit from the city to bring guns into the District of Columbia. The Oath Keepers kept a cache of firearms in their hotel in Arlington waiting for the moment to bring them in. They weren’t ready, at least at the insurrection’s start, to break the law so flagrantly. The result was a violent melee in and around the Capitol fought mostly with bear spray, flag staffs, Billy clubs and fists.

Imagine the scene if these insurrectionists had come with guns, which would likely have been the more lethal, semiautomatic types. Imagine the casualties on both sides. Members of Congress likely would have been among them, with dozens, if not hundreds, killed. There would likely have been many more of the insurrectionists dead and wounded.

Most likely the insurrectionists would not have succeeded and most likely most of them would be dead. That’s because the National Mission Force was on standby. With shoot to kill orders and armed with all the technology and training needed, they would have brought the situation under control with stunning and quick lethality.

If you have to have an insurrection, as bad as it was, what transpired was about the best possible outcome. Casualties were mostly property and not people. Firearms were almost not used. There was no particular moment that could be used to recruit others to try again. The insurrectionists showed stunning stupidity by streaming a lot of it and leaving electronic footprints all over the place that could be used to charge them. They came off very badly as seemingly unwashed, untrained hotheads who didn’t know what they were doing.

This doesn’t excuse the botched preparations to fully protect the Capitol or our former president’s obvious incitement of a riot, sedition and his foot dragging to get the situation under control. I do hope that eventually he is brought up on relevant charges because it’s clear to anyone with a brain, on both sides of the aisle, that Trump was instrumental in the whole thing. It was entirely preventable. He just had to civilly accept the result that he lost, and wouldn’t.

It’s unlikely that the Capitol will ever be breached again by insurrectionists, or anyone. That’s not to say civil war is impossible or attempts to overthrow the government can’t happen. But it’s likely to happen through corruption of the system, which has been underway for a long time now.